Category Archives: Space

Project Dragonfly Lives!

Here is another great post from Centauri Dreams, written by Andreas Hein. Good stuff.

2089, 5th April: A blurry image rushes over screens around the world. The image of a coastline, waves crashing into it, inviting for a nice evening walk at dawn. Nobody would have paid special attention, if it were not for one curious feature: Two suns were mounted in the sky, two bright, hellish eyes. The first man-made object had reached another star system.

Is it plausible to assume that we could send a probe to another star within our century? One major challenge is the amount of resources needed for such a mission. [1, 2]. Ships proposed in the past were mostly mammoths, weighing ten-thousands of tons: the fusion-propelled Daedalus probe with 54,000 tonnes and recently the Project Icarus Ghost Ship with over 100,000 tonnes. All these concepts are based on the rocket principle, which means that they have to take their propellant with them to accelerate. This results in a very large ship.

Another problem with fusion propulsion in particular is the problem of scalability. Most fusion propulsion systems get more efficient when they are scaled up. There is also a critical lower threshold for how small you can go. These factors lead to large amounts of needed propellant and large engines, for which you need a large space infrastructure. A Solar System-wide economy is probably needed, as the Project Daedalus report argues [3].

Icarus Ghost Ship

Image: The Project Icarus Ghost Ship: A colossal fusion-propelled interstellar probe

However, there is a different avenue for interstellar travel: going small. If you go small, you need less energy for accelerating the probe and thus less resources. Pioneers of small interstellar missions are Freeman Dyson with his Astrochicken; a living, one kilogram probe, bio-engineered for the space environment [4]. Robert Forward proposed the Starwisp probe in 1985 [5]. A large, ultra-thin sail which rides on a beam of microwaves. Furthermore, Frank Tipler and Ray Kurzweil describe how nano-scale probes could be used for transporting human consciousness to the stars [6, 7].

At the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS), we wanted to have a fresh look at small interstellar probes, laser sail probes in particular. The last concepts in this area have been developed years ago. How did the situation change in recent years? Are there new, possibly disruptive concepts on the horizon? We think there are. The basic idea is to develop an interstellar mission by combining the following technologies:

  • Laser sail propulsion: The spacecraft rides on a laser beam, which is captured by an extremely thin sail [8].
  • Small spacecraft technology: Highly miniaturized spacecraft components which are used in CubeSat missions
  • Distributed spacecraft: To spread out the payload of a larger spacecraft over several spacecraft, thus, reducing the laser power requirements [9, 10]. The individual spacecraft would then rendezvous at the target star system and collaborate to fulfill their mission objectives. For example, one probe is mainly responsible for communication with the Solar System, another responsible for planetary exploration via distributed sensor networks (smart dust) [11].
  • Magnetic sails: A thin superconducting ring’s magnetic field deflects the hydrogen in the interstellar medium and decelerates the spacecraft [12].
  • Solar power satellites: The laser system shall use space infrastructure which is likely to exist in the next 50 years. Solar power satellites would be temporarily leased to provide the laser system with power to propel the spacecraft.
  • Communication systems with external power supply: A critical factor for small interstellar missions is power supply for the communication system. As small spacecraft cannot provide enough power for communicating over these vast distances. Thus, power has to be supplied externally, either by using laser or microwave power from the Solar System during the trip and solar radiation within the target star system [5].

Size Comparison

Image: Size comparison between an interplanetary solar sail and the Project Icarus Ghost Ship. Interstellar sail-based spacecraft would be much larger. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann and Kelvin Long)

Bringing all these technologies together, it is possible to imagine a mission which could be realized with technologies which are feasible in the next 10 years and could be in place in the next 50 years: A set of solar power satellites are leased for a couple of years for the mission. A laser system with a huge aperture has been put into a suitable orbit to propel the interstellar, as well as future planetary missions. Thus, the infrastructure can be reused for multiple purposes. The interstellar probes are launched one-by-one.

After decades, the probes start to decelerate by magnetic sails. Each spacecraft charges its sails differently. The first spacecraft decelerates slower than the follow-up probes. Ideally, the spacecraft then arrive at the target star system at the same point in time. Then, the probes start exploring the star system autonomously. They reason about exploration strategies, exchange and share data. Once a suitable exploration target has been chosen, dedicated probes descend to the planetary surface, spreading dust-sized sensor networks onto the pristine land. The data from the network is collected by other spacecraft and transferred back to the spacecraft acting as a communication hub. The hub, powered by the light from extrasolar light sends back the data to us. The result could be the scenario described at the beginning of this article.

Artistic impression

Image: Artist’s impression of a laser sail probe with a chip-sized payload. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)

Of course, one of the caveats of such a mission is its complexity. The spacecraft would have to rendezvous precisely over interstellar distances. Furthermore, there are several challenges with laser sail systems, which have been frequently addressed in the literature, for example beam collimation and control. Nevertheless, such a mission architecture has many advantages compared to existing ones: It could be realized by a space infrastructure we could imagine to exist in the next 50 years. The failure of one or more spacecraft would not be catastrophic, as redundancy could easily be built in by launching two or more identical spacecraft.

The elegance of this mission architecture is that all the infrastructure elements can also be used for other purposes. For example, a laser infrastructure could not only be used for an interstellar mission but interplanetary as well. Further applications include an asteroid defense system [20]. The solar power satellites can be used for providing in-space infrastructure with power [18].

spacecraft swarm

Image: Artist’s impression of a spacecraft swarm arriving at an exosolar system (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)

How about the feasibility of the individual technologies? Recent progress in various areas looks promising:

  • The increased availability of highly sophisticated miniaturized commercial components: smart phones include many components which are needed for a space system, e.g. gyros for attitude determination, a communication system, and a microchip for data-handling. NASA has already flown a couple of “phone-sats”; Satellites which are based on a smart phone [13].
  • Advances in distributed satellite networks: Although a single small satellite only has a limited capability, several satellites which cooperate can replace larger space systems. The concept of Federated Satellite Systems (FSS) is currently explored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as at the Skolkovo Institute of Technology in Russia [14]. Satellites communicate opportunistically and share data and computing capacity. It is basically a cloud computing environment in space.
  • Increased viability of solar sail missions. A number of recent missions are based on solar sail technology, e.g. the Japanese IKAROS probe, LightSail-1 of the Planetary Society, and NASA’s Sunjammer probe.
  • Greg Matloff recently proposed use of Graphene as a material for solar sails [15]. With an areal density of a fraction of a gram and high thermal resistance, this material would be truly disruptive. Currently existing materials have a much higher areal density; a number crucial for measuring the performance of solar sails.
  • Material sciences has also advanced to a degree where Graphene layers only a few atoms thick can be manufactured [16]. Thus, manufacturing a solar sail based on extremely thin layers of Graphene is not as far away as it seems.
  • Small satellites with a mass of only a few kilograms are increasingly proposed for interplanetary missions. NASA has recently announced the Interplanetary CubeSat Challenge, where teams are invited to develop CubeSat missions to the Moon and even deeper into space (NASA) [17]. Coming advances will thus stretch the capability of CubeSats beyond Low-Earth Orbit.
  • Recent proposals for solar power satellites focus on providing space infrastructure with power instead of Earth infrastructure [18, 19]. The reason is quite simple: Solar power satellites are not competitive to most Earth-based alternatives but they are in space. A recent NASA concept by John Mankins proposed the use of a highly modular tulip-shaped space power satellite, supplying geostationary communication satellites with power.
  • Large space laser systems have been proposed for asteroid defense [20]

In order to explore various mission architectures and encourage participation by a larger group of people, I4IS has recently announced the Project Dragonfly Competition in the context of the Alpha Centauri Prize [21]. We hope that with the help of this competition, we can find unprecedented mission architectures of truly disruptive capability. Once this goal is accomplished, we can concentrate our efforts on developing individual technologies and test them in near-term missions.

If this all works out, this might be the first time in history that there is a realistic possibility to explore a near-by star system within the 21st or early 22nd century with “modest” resources.

I remember when the original Project Icarus study came out in the 1970s and I was absolutely enthralled with it.

At last, interstellar exploration could be possible, not fantasy.

Then the Icarus came out a couple of years ago. The ship was more advanced, but the size doubled. How is that possible in this age of miniaturization?

I think it’s because people love the idea of Battlestar Galactica or U.S.S. Enterprise sized interstellar craft.

You gotta have powerful engines and weapons to cope with angry aliens, right?

Andrea Hein is being smart and paying respect to Robert Foward and Freeman Dyson by writing this study with up to date ideas which encompasses Cube Sat tech and other commercial space company technologies.

Project Dragonfly: The case for small, laser-propelled, distributed probes

Centauri Dreams: Creative Constraints and Starflight

I discovered Karl Schroeder’s work when I was researching brown dwarfs some years ago. Who knew that somebody was writing novels about civilizations around these dim objects? Permanence (Tor, 2003) was a real eye-opener, as were the deep-space cultures it described. Schroeder hooked me again with his latest book — he’s dealing with a preoccupation of mine, a human presence in the deep space regions between ourselves and the nearest stars, where resources are abundant and dark worlds move far from any sun. How to maintain such a society and allow it to grow into something like an empire? Karl explains the mechanism below. Science fiction fans, of which there are many on Centauri Dreams, will know Karl as the author of many other novels, including Ventus (2000), Lady of Mazes (2005) and Sun of Suns (2006).

by Karl Schroeder


My newest science fiction novel, Lockstep, has just finished its serialization in Analogmagazine, and Tor Books will have it on the bookshelves March 24. Reactions have been pretty favourable—except that I’ve managed to offend a small but vocal group of my readers. It seems that some people are outraged that I’ve written an SF story in which faster than light travel is impossible.

I did write Lockstep because I understood that it’s not actual starflight that interests most people—it’s the romance of a Star Trek or Star Wars-type interstellar civilization they want. Not the reality, but the fantasy. Even so, I misjudged the, well, the fervor with which some people cling to the belief that the lightspeed limit will just somehow, magically and handwavingly, get engineered around.

This is ironic, because the whole point of Lockstep was to find a way to have that Star Wars-like interstellar civilization in reality and not just fantasy. As an artist, I’m familiar with the power of creative constraint to generate ideas, and for Lockstep I put two constraints on myself: 1) No FTL or unknown science would be allowed in the novel. 2) The novel would contain a full-blown interstellar civilization exactly like those you find in books with FTL.

Creativity under constraint is the best kind of creativity; it’s the kind that really may take us to the stars someday. In this case, by placing such mutually contradictory — even impossible — restrictions on myself, I was forced into a solution that, in hindsight, is obvious. It is simply this: everyone I know of who has thought about interstellar civilization has thought that the big problem to be solved is the problem of speed. The issue, though (as opposed to the problem), is how to travel to an interstellar destination, spend some time there, and return to the same home you left. Near-c travel solves this problem for you, but not for those you left at home. FTL solves the problem for both you and home, but with the caveat that it’s impossible. (Okay, okay, for the outraged among you: as far as we know. To put it more exactly, we can’t prove that FTL is impossible any more than we can prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I’ll concede that.)


Read the rest here…

78,000 People Want To Go To Mars ( With Mars One )



The Mars One organization released this announcement on Tuesday:

78,000 sign up for one-way mission to Mars
Amersfoort, 7th May 2013 –  Just two weeks into the nineteen week application period, more than seventy-eight thousand people have applied to the Mars One astronaut selection program in the hope of becoming a Mars settler in 2023.

Mars One has received applications from over 120 countries. Most applications come from USA (17324), followed by China (10241), United Kingdom (3581), Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Argentina and India.

Bas Lansdorp, Mars One Co-Founder and CEO said: “With seventy-eight thousand applications in two weeks, this is turning out to be the most desired job in history. These numbers put us right on track for our goal of half a million applicants.”

“Mars One is a mission representing all humanity and its true spirit will be justified only if people from the entire world are represented. I’m proud that this is exactly what we see happening,” he said.

As part of the application every applicant is required to explain his/her motivation behind their decision go to Mars in an one minute video. Many applicants are choosing to publish this video on the Mars One website. These are openly accessible on

“Applicants we have received come from a very wide range of personalities, professions and ages. This is significant because what we are looking for is not restricted to a particular background. From Round 1 we will take forward the most committed, creative, resilient and motivated applicants,” said Dr. Norbert Kraft, Mars One Chief Medical Officer.

Mars One will continue to receive online applications until August 31st 2013. From all the applicants in Round 1, regional reviewers will select around 50-100 candidates for Round 2 in each of the 300 geographic regions in the world that Mars One has identified.

Four rounds make the selection process, which will come to an end in 2015; Mars One will then employ 28-40 candidates, who will train for around 7 years. Finally an audience vote will elect one of groups in training to be the envoys of humanity to Mars.

I’m not surprised most of the applicants are from the U.S., but the number of applicants from China does a little bit.

Maybe it shouldn’t though, the Chinese maybe looking for lebensraum ( elbow room ), what with over a billion people and all.

Mars might be an appealing bit of real estate to them.

Mars One receives 78,000 applications in 2 weeks for Mars settlement

The Interstellar Mind of Robert Goddard

From Centauri Dreams:

Astronautics pioneer Robert H. Goddard is usually thought of in connection with liquid fuel rockets. It was his test flight of such a rocket in March of 1926 that demonstrated a principle he had been working on since patenting two concepts for future engines, one a liquid fuel design, the other a staged rocket using solid fuels. “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” published in 1920, was a treatise published by the Smithsonian that developed the mathematics behind rocket flight, a report that discussed the possibility of a rocket reaching the Moon.

While Goddard’s work could be said to have anticipated many technologies subsequently developed by later engineers, the man was not without a visionary streak that went well beyond the near-term, expressing itself on at least one occasion on the subject of interstellar flight. Written in January of 1918, “The Ultimate Migration” was not a scientific paper but merely a set of notes, one that Goddard carefully tucked away from view, as seen in this excerpt from his later document “Material for an Autobiography” (1927):

“A manuscript I wrote on January 14, 1918 … and deposited in a friend’s safe … speculated as to the last migration of the human race, as consisting of a number of expeditions sent out into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking in a condensed form all the knowledge of the race, using either atomic energy or hydrogen, oxygen and solar energy… [It] was contained in an inner envelope which suggested that the writing inside should be read only by an optimist.”

Optimism is, of course, standard currency in these pages, so it seems natural to reconsider Goddard’s ideas here. As to his caution, we might remember that the idea of a lunar mission discussed in “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” not long after would bring him ridicule from some elements in the press, who lectured him on the infeasibility of a rocket engine functioning in space without air to push against. It was Goddard, of course, who was right, but he was ever a cautious man, and his dislike of the press was, I suspect, not so much born out of this incident but simply confirmed by it.

In the event, Goddard’s manuscript remained sealed and was not published until 1972. What I hadn’t realized was that Goddard, on the same day he wrote the original manuscript, also wrote a condensed version that David Baker recently published for the British Interplanetary Society. It’s an interesting distillation of the rocket scientist’s thoughts that speculates on how we might use an asteroid or a small moon as the vehicle for a journey to another star. The ideal propulsion method would, in Goddard’s view, be through the control of what he called ‘intra-atomic energy.’


Image: Rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, whose notes on an interstellar future discuss human migration to the stars.

Atomic propulsion would allow journeys to the stars lasting thousands of years with the passengers living inside a generation ship, one in which, he noted, “the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with the succeeding generations.” We’ve made the same speculation here, wondering whether a crew living and dying inside an artificial world wouldn’t so adapt to the environment that it would eventually choose not to live on a planetary surface, no matter what it found in the destination solar system.

And if atomic energy could not be harnessed? In that case, Goddard speculated that humans could be placed in what we today would think of as suspended animation, the crew awakened at intervals of 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars, and intervals of a million years for greater distances. Goddard speculates on how an accurate clock could be built to ensure awakening, which he thought would be necessary for human intervention to steer the spacecraft if it came to be off its course. Suspended animation would involve huge changes to the body:

…will it be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space? It would probably be necessary to dessicate the body, more or less, before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly. It might be necessary to have people evolve, through a number of generations, for this purpose.

As to destinations, Goddard saw the ideal as a star like the Sun or, interestingly, a binary system with two suns like ours — perhaps he was thinking of the Alpha Centauri stars here. But that was only the beginning, for Goddard thought in terms of migration, not just exploration. His notes tell us that expeditions should be sent to all parts of the Milky Way, wherever new stars are thickly clustered. Each expedition should include “…all the knowledge, literature, art (in a condensed form), and description of tools, appliances, and processes, in as condensed, light, and indestructible a form as possible, so that a new civilisation could begin where the old ended.”

The notes end with the thought that if neither of these scenarios develops, it might still be possible to spread our species to the stars by sending human protoplasm, “…this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings eventually, by evolution.” Given that Goddard locked his manuscript away, it could have had no influence on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind,” which in 1928 speculated that humans might travel on millennial voyages to the stars aboard the future equivalent of a Noah’s Ark.

Interstellar voyages lasting thousands of years would become a familiar trope of science fiction in the ensuing decades, but it is interesting to see how, at the dawn of liquid fuel rocketry, rocket pioneers were already thinking ahead to far-future implications of the technology. Goddard was writing at a time when estimates of the Sun’s lifetime gave our species just millions of years before its demise — a cooling Sun was a reason for future migration. We would later learn the Sun’s lifetime was much longer, but the migration of humans to the stars would retain its fascination for those who contemplate not only worldships but much faster journeys.


Goddard was obviously influenced by his contemporary J.D. Bernal with his The World, the Flesh and the Devil  which predicted Man’s spread out into the Solar System and interstellar space with artificial worlds and hollowed out asteroids.


These worlds are needed because such journeys will take hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.


Of course that brings in natural evolution and what these people inside these places will become when they eventually reach their destinations and if they’ll actually have need of them.


Robert Goddard’s Interstellar Migration






Falcon Heavy or Space Launch System For Lunar Exploration ?

From America Space:

There have been occasional suggestions that NASA should scrap its Space Launch System (SLS) in favor of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for fulfilling its beyond low-Earth orbit needs [1]. The claim forwarded by some is that the as-yet-untested-and-unflown 53 mt low-Earth orbit (LEO) (200 km @ 28°) Falcon Heavy is now “cheaper” than the as-yet-untested-and-unflown SLS. Furthermore, canceling the SLS would supposedly save NASA $10 billion—money that could otherwise be used to fund such programs as the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap), to conduct a flight test of Orion on a Falcon Heavy, and to focus on building a small-scale space station in the area near the Moon. One issue not addressed by proponents of canceling SLS is whether it is a good idea to couple a nation’s human exploration spaceflight capabilities to a private company. An issue which appears to be altogether ignored, is the Falcon Heavy’s small lunar payload capability and the impact this would have on an already complex and risky endeavor such as lunar exploration.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 Heavy, also called the Falcon Heavy, will have a 53 mt (metric ton) payload capacity to LEO of 200 km with an inclination of 28° [2]. Such a LEO payload capability will be impressive, allowing SpaceX to launch nearly twice the payload of a Delta IV Heavy or an Atlas V, and to do so more cheaply than either. But when it comes to launching payload to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or beyond, the Falcon 9 Heavy falls far short of either the Delta or Atlas launchers. With a GTO payload of barely over 12 mt, the Falcon 9 Heavy is at least 1 metric ton, or 1,000 kg, under what either the Delta IV Heavy or Atlas V can deliver to the same point in space.

The Falcon 9 Heavy is, much like United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, a triple-bodied version of the company's Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Heavy is, much like United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, a triple-bodied version of the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Heavy’s GTO payload deficiency relative to the existing EELV launch vehicles has other down-stream effects as to its appropriateness for beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) crewed exploration. It is safe to assume that the Falcon Heavy’s low-lunar orbit (LLO) payload capacity will not top much above 10 mt [3]. How will the Falcon 9 Heavy’s meager LLO payload capacity enable a meaningful return to the Moon? And why even talk about the Falcon Heavy as a possible launcher of crewed lunar exploration when each of the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V launchers can send over 1,000 kg more than the Falcon Heavy to the Moon? Moreover, while the Delta IV and Atlas V have extensive flight histories, the Falcon Heavy has no such experience.

Advocates of using the Falcon Heavy don’t just want to rewrite who takes us beyond-Earth orbit, but more fundamentally how such missions are built. Reliance upon the Falcon Heavy for launching a beyond-Earth exploration program means some hard choices as to mission architecture. Traditionally, crewed exploration beyond low-Earth orbit has focused on minimizing complexity, and therefore risk and cost, by using a heavy-lift rocket (HLV). The logic behind using an HLV for lunar exploration in the past was that fewer launches correlated to less risk. The Falcon Heavy’s 10 mt capability means that any lunar exploration program will have to be one of assembling pieces/parts in low-Earth orbit, where the Falcon Heavy’s (LEO) 53 mt payload capacity can really shine. Some have claimed that centering a beyond-Earth exploration program on the Falcon Heavy does not mean ending the Orion spacecraft program. They point this out because Orion is the only spacecraft designed from the ground up for beyond-Earth exploration. Certainly, a Falcon Heavy can place an Orion crewed and service module in low-Earth orbit. But several additional launches will be needed to send Orion and her crew to the Moon. A lunar crewed mission using the Falcon Heavy would mean assembling, at necessary LEO locations, a crewed vehicle, a lander, a trans-lunar injection stage, a stage to get the crewed spacecraft and lander into LLO, and possibly a separate stage to enable the crewed spacecraft to return to Earth [4].

While supporters of an all-commercial approach frequently tout the company's laudable accomplishments - they just as frequently ignore the limitations of both the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle as well as the Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: SpaceX

While supporters of an all-commercial approach frequently tout the company’s laudable accomplishments, they just as frequently ignore the limitations of both the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: SpaceX

One problem with a non-HLV approach to lunar exploration is that if a replacement Falcon Heavy and payload are not handy, any launch failure could very well mean a scrubbed mission. So a non-HLV approach necessarily means an inventory of not just a spare Falcon Heavy, but of duplicate spaceflight hardware—or designing hardware and refueling stations such that a delay of weeks or months would have only a marginal impact on the mission. Solving all of these unknown-unknowns (or unk-unks in engineering speak) associated with multiple launches, assembling a mission in LEO, in-space refueling at an orbiting location, among others flowing from a non-HLV approach to beyond-Earth exploration, could see the cost advantage of using the relatively unproven Falcon Heavy largely, if not completely, evaporate.

A beyond-Earth exploration program using the Falcon Heavy in an HLV architecture has its own downsides and associated costs. In order to enable the Falcon 9 Heavy to be a capable beyond low-Earth orbit launcher, funds will certainly be needed to create a new cryogenic second-stage. This will be needed because, in its current configuration, a Falcon 9 Heavy could not even launch one 11.6 mt Unity node module, much less a 20 mt Bigelow BA 330 Nautilus module. Even with a brand new second-stage, reliance upon the Falcon 9 Heavy to build, visit, and maintain a lunar orbiting outpost will dictate doing so in very small chunks; the number of launches will then begin to add-up, as will the complexity, risk, and cost. A Falcon Heavy cannot place an Orion spacecraft even in high-Earth, much less lunar, orbit. So reliance upon the Falcon 9 Heavy for beyond low-Earth missions in an HLV-based lunar mission architecture would only set NASA up to cancel Orion and go with Dragon for our nation’s crewed space exploration needs.

As it currently stands, neither NASA's Space Launch System nor SpaceX's Falcon Heavy have a proven track record. However, it would take multiple launches to accomplish what SLS could in a single flight. Image Credit: NASA

While it may be true that the Dragon spacecraft has a heatshield capable of allowing the spacecraft safe reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, little else of Dragon is crew, much less lunar mission, capable. SpaceX’s Dragon is currently a participant in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs. One goal of NASA’s commercial crew program is to enable spacecraft built and operated by commercial space companies to get crews to and from the International Space Station by late 2017. But the requirements for a crewed spacecraft tailored for low-Earth orbit are different than those for beyond-Earth orbit. For one, a LEO capable spacecraft need only be capable of hours of operation, where a lunar spacecraft needs a capability of days. This means that the use of the Falcon Heavy as a means to returning humans to the Moon very likely means funding further enhancements, and verifying those enhancements to the Dragon spacecraft. As with over 90 percent of the funding for Falcon 9 and Dragon, this additional financial burden would fall upon NASA’s, and therefore the U.S. taxpayer’s, shoulders. Even with an enhanced Falcon Heavy launcher and Dragon spacecraft, more than one Falcon Heavy launch would still be needed to support a crewed lunar landing mission. Several Falcon Heavy launches would be needed to build a lunar orbiting outpost.

NASA's SLS has the full support, to include funding, of Congress, as such, efforts to cancel the system in lieu of one that favors the company that SpaceX supporters approve of - is not likely to occur. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s SLS has the full support, to include funding, of Congress. As such, efforts to cancel the system in lieu of one that favors the company that SpaceX supporters approve of is not likely to occur. Image Credit: NASA

Or NASA could send a crewed lunar mission or build a lunar outpost with far fewer SLS launches. That’s because the very first iteration of the SLS, the Block I, will carry twice the payload of a Falcon Heavy to the Moon. The SLS Block II will have a lunar payload capacity nearly 3–4 times that of the Falcon Heavy, depending upon what engines are selected for the SLS’s advanced booster.

Beyond the SLS’s substantial payload advantage for lunar missions, the question of cost remains. Are 3 or 4 Falcon Heavy launches really cheaper than just one SLS Block II launch? That is a hard question to answer given that both launchers are still effectively “paper” rockets. In factoring launch costs, there is the cost of the launch vehicle, the launch pad, launch support, and post-launch management, just to name a few.

The bigger problem for those wishing to end the Space Launch System program is that it is currently ahead of schedule. According to John Elbon, Boeing VP & General Manager, Space Exploration, “We’re on budget, ahead of schedule. There’s incredible progress going on with that rocket” [5]. Canceling a rocket that is ahead of schedule would be difficult at best. Given that Congress has, over three votes, not only supported SLS but increased its funding over amounts sought by the Obama Administration, the odds of opponents getting SLS canceled are slim-to-none.

Space Launch System opponents suggest that the SLS program should cancel until a mission requiring such a rocket is identified. John Shannon, also with Boeing, recently stated, “This ‘SLS doesn’t have a mission’ is a smokescreen that’s been put out there by people who would like to see that [program’s] budget go to their own pet projects. SLS is every mission beyond low Earth orbit. The fact that NASA has not picked one single mission is kind of irrelevant” [6]. It bears mentioning that a good part of the reason there is no meaningful mission for the Orion-SLS is because the Obama Administration has not agreed with Congress that, as Congress noted in its 2010 NASA Authorization Act, cislunar space is the next step in our efforts beyond Earth and that the SLS is an integral part of that step.

Moreover, both short- and long-term missions for SLS have emerged in recent months. Within the 2014 FY Budget Proposal Request, NASA was directed to retrieve an asteroid, place it in lunar orbit, and then send astronauts to study it. The vehicle of choice is SLS. During a recent interview, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Dan Dumbacher stated on AmericaSpace that the long-term mission for SLS was to send astronauts to Mars.

Mr. Jillhouse sings the acolades of the Space Launch System as others sing them about SpaceX’s Falcon9 rockets. What he fails to mention is the SLS’s massive program slippages and muti-billion dollar cost overruns, versus commercial’s million dollar overruns and schedule slippages. It’s not even in the same ballgame, let alone ballpark.

Also the point should be that NASA should’ve bid the SLS job out in order to save the taxpayers money, but the function of SLS isn’t primarily for beyond Earth orbit exploration.

It’s to provide jobs in states that have NASA centers. And that’s why these projects are perpetually underfunded, just enough money is sent in order to keep people employed as long as the politicians can make it possible.

Maybe in the end the SLS will get finished and work as advertised. If I live long enough.

Falcon Heavy: Uncertain Case For Lunar Exploration

Orbital Sciences Launches It’s Antares Rocket


Orbital Sciences Corporation Sunday launched its Antares rocket at 05:00 p.m. EDT from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The test flight was the first launch from the pad at Wallops and was the first flight of Antares, which delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth’s orbit.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.

“President Obama has presented a budget for next year that ensures the United States will remain the world leader in space exploration, and a critical part of this budget is the funding needed to advance NASA’s commercial space initiative. In order to stop outsourcing American space launches, we need to have the President’s budget enacted. It’s a budget that’s good for our economy, good for the U.S. Space program — and good for American taxpayers.”

The test of the Antares launch system began with the rocket’s rollout and placement on the launch pad April 6, and culminated with the separation of the mass simulator payload from the rocket.

The completed flight paves the way for a demonstration mission by Orbital to resupply the space station later this year. Antares will launch experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory carried aboard the company’s new Cygnus cargo spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“Today’s successful test flight of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket from the spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, demonstrates an additional private space-launch capability for the United States and lays the groundwork for the first Antares cargo mission to the International Space Station later this year,” said John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century. With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.

“I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA teams at Wallops, and look forward to more groundbreaking missions in the months and years ahead.”

Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. After successful completion of a COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin conducting eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through NASA’s $1.9 billion CRS contract with the company.

NASA initiatives, such as COTS, are helping to develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program also is working with commercial space partners to develop capabilities to launch U.S. astronauts from American soil in the next few years.

Although Orbital had to reschedule three times, they got their test launch off.

Let’s hope they solved their fairing separation issues before the main Cygnus missions start.

Orbital Sciences Test Launches Antares Rocket

Skylab II


NASA’s first manned outpost in deep space may be a repurposed rocket part, just like the agency’s first-ever astronaut abode in Earth orbit.

With a little tinkering, the upper-stage hydrogen propellant tank of NASA’s huge Space Launch System rocket would make a nice and relatively cheap deep-space habitat, some researchers say. They call the proposed craft “Skylab II,” an homage to the 1970s Skylab space station that was a modified third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket.

“This idea is not challenging technology,” said Brand Griffin, an engineer with Gray Research, Inc., who works with the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“It’s just trying to say, ‘Is this the time to be able to look at existing assets, planned assets and incorporate those into what we have as a destination of getting humans beyond LEO [low-Earth orbit]?'” Griffin said Wednesday (March 27) during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group.

Astronauts Fly Orion to Skylab II

A roomy home in deep space

NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch astronauts toward distant destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and Mars. The rocket’s first test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA wants it to start lofting crews by 2021.

The SLS will stand 384 feet tall (117 meters) in its biggest (“evolved”) incarnation, which will be capable of blasting 130 metric tons of payload to orbit. Its upper-stage hydrogen tank is big, too, measuring 36.1 feet tall by 27.6 feet wide (11.15 m by 8.5 m).

The tank’s dimensions yield an internal volume of 17,481 cubic feet (495 cubic m) — roughly equivalent to a two-story house. That’s much roomier than a potential deep-space habitat derived from modules of the International Space Station (ISS), which are just 14.8 feet (4.5 m) wide, Griffin said.

The tank-based Skylab II could accommodate a crew of four comfortably and carry enough gear and food to last for several years at a time without requiring a resupply, he added. Further, it would launch aboard the SLS in a single piece, whereas ISS-derived habitats would need to link up multiple components in space.

Because of this, Skylab II would require relatively few launches to establish and maintain, Griffin said. That and the use of existing SLS-manufacturing infrastructure would translate into big cost savings — a key selling point in today’s tough fiscal climate.

“We will have the facilities in place, the tooling, the personnel, all the supply chain and everything else,” Griffin said.

He compared the overall concept with the original Skylab space station, which was built in a time of declining NASA budgets after the boom years of the Apollo program.

Skylab “was a project embedded under the Apollo program,” Griffin said. “In many ways, this could follow that same pattern. It could be a project embedded under SLS and be able to, ideally, not incur some of the costs of program startup.”

Skylab II Made From Tank

There has been much caterwauling in the space advocacy community about the Space Launch System ( ne, “The Senate Launch System” ) concerning its cost and lack of purpose and/or destinations.

Of course, the thing was designed by Congress in order to fund a jobs program in the NASA Centers for the good voters of those districts. But it’s a seriously underfunded program, with just enough money to keep the civil servants of NASA employed, with just enough contractor support to keep them happy.

In the meantime, ideas like Skylab II, the Spacehab at EML-2 and the asteroid capture scheme rear their ugly heads and claim they’re economical in these austeric times.

My money is still on Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow, Dennis Tito and company.

NASA Mega-Rocket Could Lead to Skylab 2 Deep Space Station

International Spacecraft To Hit Asteroid in 2022

From Huffington Post:

Aida Mission

Scientists in Europe and the United States are moving forward with plans to intentionally smash a spacecraft into a huge nearby asteroid in 2022 to see inside the space rock.

The ambitious European-led Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, is slated to launch in 2019 to send two spacecraft — one built by scientists in the U.S, and the other by the European Space Agency — on a three-year voyage to the asteroid Didymos and its companion. Didymos has no chance of impacting the Earth, which makes it a great target for this kind of mission, scientists involved in the mission said in a presentation Tuesday (March 19) here at the 44th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Didymos is actually a binary asteroid system consisting of two separate space rocks bound together by gravity. The main asteroid is enormous, measuring 2,625 feet (800 meters) across. It is orbited by a smaller asteroid  about 490 feet (150 m).

The Didymos asteroid setup is an intriguing target for the AIDA mission because it will give scientists their first close look at a binary space rock system while also yielding new insights into ways to deflect dangerous asteroids that could pose an impact threat to the Earth. [Photos of Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

“Binary systems are quite common,” said Andy Rivkin, a scientist at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., working on the U.S. portion of AIDA project. “This will be our first rendezvous with a binary system.”

In 2022, the Didymos asteroids will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from the Earth, during a close approach, which is why AIDA scientists have timed their mission for that year.

Rivkin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory are building DART (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), one of the two spacecraft making up the tag team AIDA mission. Like its acronym suggests, the DART probe crash directly into the smaller Didymos asteroid while travelling at 14,000 mph (22,530 km/h), creating a crater during an impact that will hopefully sending the space rock slightly off course, Rivkin said.

The European Space Agency is building the second AIDA spacecraft, which is called the Asteroid Impact Monitor (or AIM). AIM will observe the impact from a safe distance, and the probe’s data will be used with other data collected by telescopes on Earth to understand exactly what the impact did to the asteroid.

“AIM is the usual shoebox satellite,” ESA researcher Jens Biele,  who works on the AIM spacecraft, said. “It’s nothing very fancy.”

AIDA scientists hope their mission will push the smaller Didymos asteroid off course by only a few millimeters. The small space rock orbits the larger, primary Didymos asteroid once every 12 hours.

The goal, Rivkin said, is to use the DART impact as a testbed for the most basic method of asteroid deflection: a direct collision with a spacecraft.  If the mission is successful, it could have implications for how space agencies around the world learn how to deflect larger, more threatening asteroid that could pose a threat to Earth, he added.

At the moment, AIDA researchers are not sure of the exact composition of the Didymos asteroids. They could just be a loose conglomeration of rocks travelling together through the solar system, or made of much denser stuff.

But once DART impacts the asteroid, scientists will be able to measure how much the asteroid’s orbit is affected as well as classify its surface composition, Rivkin said. And by studying how debris floats outward from the impact site after the crash, researchers could also better prepare for the conditions astronauts may encounter during future manned missions to asteroids — such as NASA’s project to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, he added.

The AIDA mission’s AIM space craft is expected to cost about 150 million euros (about $194 million), while the DART spacecraft is slated to cost about $150 million, mission officials said.

While the DART and AIDA missions are relatively inexpensive ( $150 and $194 million respectively ) private companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries don’t just plan on impacting asteroids, they plan on mining the crap out of them.

The question is whether these companies are willing to wait on the science to be obtained by these government probes in order to save them money on research.

Asteroid Deflection Mission AIDA Set To Crash Two Spacecraft Into Space Rock In 2022

Did Voyager 1 Leave The Solar System?


For about three hours on Wednesday, Voyager 1 had left the solar system — before a rewritten news release headline pulled it back in. Voyager 1, one of two spacecraft NASA launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets, is now nearly 11.5 billion miles from the Sun, speeding away at 38,000 miles per hour. In a paper accepted by the journal Geophysical Review Letters, William R. Webber of New Mexico State University and Frank B. McDonald of the University of Maryland reported that on Aug. 25 last year, the spacecraft observed a sudden change in the mix of cosmic rays hitting it.

Cosmic rays are high-speed charged particles, mostly protons. Voyager 1’s instruments recorded nearly a doubling of cosmic rays from outside the solar system, while the intensity of cosmic rays that had been trapped in the outer solar system dropped by 90 percent.

The American Geophysical Union, publisher of the journal, sent out the news Wednesday morning: “Voyager 1 has left the solar system.” NASA officials, surprised, countered with a contrary statement from Edward C. Stone, the Voyager project scientist. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space,” Dr. Stone said. He said that the critical indicator would be a change in the direction of the magnetic field, not cosmic rays, for marking the outermost boundary of the solar system. In their paper, Dr. Webber and Dr. McDonald (who died only six days after Voyager observed the shift in cosmic rays) did not claim that Voyager 1 was in interstellar space, but had entered a part of the solar system they called the “heliocliff.” The geophysical union then sent out another e-mail with the same article but a milder headline: “Voyager 1 has entered a new region of space.”

Eventually Voyager 1 will leave the Solar System and there will be no dispute about it.

In the meantime, mainstream science will learn and post about the outer edges of the Solar System as Voyager 1 creeps along at .00002 lightspeed ( 37,500 mph ) .

Of course there are those in mainstream media and science who believe that mankind will never leave the Solar System because they proclaim that spacecraft will never be built that go faster than that.

Already the Pluto probe New Horizon traveling at 54,500 mph is breaking Voyager’s speed record and will probably leave the Solar System before Voyager does!

I’m certain in 100 years star probes will be launched toward Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti that reach appreciable percentages of lightspeed bypassing all of our old interplanetary probes and perhaps in several centuries, mankind’s interstellar colonies will be picking up these old probes to study them, like old time capsules!

Where’s Voyager 1? That Depends.

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Habitability vs. Colonizability


Habitability is the measure of highest value in planet-hunting. But should it be?

Kepler and the other planet-finding missions have begun to bear fruit. We now know that most stars have planets, and that a surprising percentage will have Earth-sized worlds in their habitable zone–the region where things are not too hot and not too cold, where life can develop. Astronomers are justly fascinated by this region and what they can find there. We have the opportunity, in our lifetimes, to learn whether life exists outside our own solar system, and maybe even find out how common it is.

We have another opportunity, too–one less talked-about by astronomers but a common conversation among science fiction writers. For the first time in  history, we may be able to identify worlds we could move to and live on.

As we think about this second possibility, it’s important to bear in mind that habitability and colonizability are not the same thing. Nobody seems to be doing this; I can’t find any term but habitability used to describe the exoplanets we’re finding. Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. So, the term applies to places that are vitally important for study; but it doesn’t necessarily apply to places we might want to go.

Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there.

To see the difference between habitability and colonizability, we can look at two very different planets: Gliese 581g and Alpha Centauri Bb. Neither of these is confirmed to exist, but we have enough data to be able to say a little about what they’re like if they do. Gliese 581g is a super-earth orbiting in the middle of its star’s habitable zone. This means liquid water could well form on its surface, which makes it a habitable world according to the current definition.

Centauri Bb, on the other hand, orbits very close to its star, and its surface temperature is likely high enough to render one half of it (it’s tidally locked to its sun, like our moon is to Earth) a magma sea. Alpha Centauri Bb is most definitely not habitable.

So Gliese 581g is habitable and Centauri Bb is not; but does this mean that 581g is more colonizable than Bb? Actually, no.

Because 581g is a super-earth, the gravity on its surface is going to be greater than Earth’s. Estimates vary, but the upper end of the range puts it at 1.7g. If you weigh 150 lbs on Earth, you’d weigh 255 lbs on 581g. This is with your current musculature; convert all your body fat to muscle and you might just be able to get around without having to use leg braces or a wheelchair. However, your cardiovascular system is going to be under a permanent strain on this world–and there’s no way to engineer your habitat to comfortably compensate.

On the other hand, Centauri Bb is about the same size as Earth. Its surface gravity is likely to be around the same. Since it’s tidally locked, half of its surface is indeed a lava hell–but the other hemisphere will be cooler, and potentially much cooler. I wouldn’t bet there’s any breathable atmosphere or open water there, but as a place to build sealed domes to live in, it’s not off the table.

Also consider that it’s easier to get stuff onto and off of the surface of Bb than the surface of a high-gravity super-earth. Add to that the very thick atmosphere that 581g is likely to have, and human subsistence on 581g–even if it’s a paradise for local life–is looking more and more awkward.

Doubtless 581g is a better candidate for life; but to me, Centauri Bb looks more colonizable.

A definition of colonizability

We’ve got a fairly good definition of what makes a planet habitable: stable temperatures suitable for the formation of liquid water. Is it possible to develop an equally satisfying (or more satisfying) definition of colonizability for a planet?

Yes–and here it is. Firstly, a colonizable world has to have an accessible surface. A super-earth with an incredibly thick atmosphere and a surface gravity of 3 or 4 gees just isn’t colonizable, however much life there may be on it.

Secondly, and more subtly, the right elements have to be accessible on the planet for it to be colonizable. This seems a bit puzzling at first, but what if Centauri Bb is the only planet in the Centauri system, and it has only trace elements of Nitrogen in its composition? It’s not going to matter how abundant everything else is. A planet like this–a star system like this–cannot support a colony of earthly life forms. Nitrogen is a critical component of biological life, at least our flavour of it.

In an article entitled “The Age of Substitutibility”, published in Science in 1978, H.E. Goeller and A.M. Weinberg proposed an artificial mineral they called Demandite. It comes in two forms. A molecule of industrial demandite would contain all the elements necessary for industrial manufacturing and construction, in the proportions that you’d get if you took, say, an average city and ground it up into a fine pulp. There’re about 20 elements in industrial demandite including carbon, iron, sodium, chlorine etc. Biological demandite, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of just six elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. (If you ground up an entire ecosystem and looked at the proportions of these elements making it up, you could in fact find an existing molecule that has exactly the same proportions. It’s called cellulose.)

Thirdly, there must be a manageable flow of energy at the surface. The place can be hot or cold, but it has to be possible for us to move heat around. You can’t really do that at the surface of Venus, for instance; it’s 800 degrees everywhere on the ground so your air conditioning spends an insane amount of energy just overcoming this thermal inertia. Access to a gradient of temperature or energy is what makes physical work possible.

Obviously things like surface pressure, stellar intensity, distance from Earth etc. play big parts, but these are the main three factors that I can see. It should be instantly obvious that they have almost nothing to do with how far the planet is from its primary. There is no ‘colonizable zone’ similar to a ‘habitable zone’ around any given star. The judgment has to be made on a world by world basis.

Note that by this definition, Mars is marginally colonizable. Why? Not because of  its temperature or low air pressure, but because it’s very low in Nitrogen, at least at the surface. The combination of Mars and Ceres may make a colonizable unit, if Ceres has a good supply of Nitrogen in its makeup–and this idea of combo environments being colonizable complicates the picture. We’re unlikely to be able to detect an object the size of Ceres around Alpha Centauri, so long-distance elimination of a system as a candidate for colonizability is going to be difficult. Conversely, if we can detect the presence of all the elements necessary for life and industry on a roughly Earth-sized planet, regardless of whether it’s in its star’s habitable zone, we may have a candidate for colonizability.

The colonizability of an accessible planet with a good temperature gradient can be rated according to how well its composition matches the compositions of industrial and biological demandite. We can get very precise with this scale, and we probably should. It, and not habitability, is the true measure of which worlds we might wish to visit.

To sum up, I’m proposing that we add a second measure to the existing scale of habitability when studying exoplanets. The habitability of a planet actually says nothing about how attractive it might be for us to visit. Colonizability is the missing metric for judging the value of planets around other stars.

This raises the ethical question of at which point do we as a race change the environment of an alien world’s biology in order to suit our needs?

Do we engage in biological genicide to seed a planet with Earth-life, or do we adapt ourselves to suit the exoplanet’s environment?

Or do we move on to another planet that is more “colonizable” as Schroeder suggests and totally build a habitat from scratch?

A tale of two worlds: habitable, or colonizable? 

Hat tip to Centauri Dreams.


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